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Published when the author was just twenty-three, Life Goes On was Hans Keilson’s literary debut, an extraordinary autobiographical novel that paints a dark yet illuminating portrait of Germany between the world wars. It is the story of Herr Seldersen—a Jewish store owner modeled on Keilson’s father, a textile merchant and decorated World War I veteran—along with his wife and son, Albrecht, and the troubles they encounter as the German economy collapses and politics turn ...
Published when the author was just twenty-three, Life Goes On was Hans Keilson’s literary debut, an extraordinary autobiographical novel that paints a dark yet illuminating portrait of Germany between the world wars. It is the story of Herr Seldersen—a Jewish store owner modeled on Keilson’s father, a textile merchant and decorated World War I veteran—along with his wife and son, Albrecht, and the troubles they encounter as the German economy collapses and politics turn rancid.
The book was banned by the Nazis in 1934. Shortly afterward, following his editor’s advice, Keilson emigrated to the Netherlands, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Life Goes On is an essential volume for readers of Keilson’s later work. At the age of one hundred, with his one copy of the first edition of Life Goes On in hand, Keilson told The New York Times that he would love to see his first novel reissued, and translated as well. “Then you would have my whole biography,” he told them. He died at the age of one hundred and one.
Hans Keilson was born in Germany in 1909 and died in Amsterdam at the age of 101, having practiced as a psychoanalyst for almost six decades. During World War II, Keilson joined the Dutch Resistance and later, as a psychoanalyst, pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children. Keilson had, of course, endured traumas of his own (both his parents were killed in Auschwitz), and the three novels that he wrote between 1933 and 1959 might be seen as attempts not only to depict Nazi terror but also to analyze its underlying psychology.
All three novels are semi-autobiographical, and each has its own perilous history. Life Goes On was published in Germany in 1933, when Keilson was twenty-three, and it was banned by the Nazis in 1934. Comedy in a Minor Key, first published in the Netherlands in 1947, is dedicated to the Dutch couple that hid Keilson after he treated their daughter. Death of the Adversary was unfinished when the German army occupied the Netherlands, and Keilson buried the fifty pages he had. He completed the novel years later, and it was first published in German in 1959. An English translation by Ivo Jarosy of Death of the Adversary appeared in 1962, but it was the 2010 republication of this novel that brought Keilson to wider attention, part of the same wave of rediscovery that brought light to the works of wartime novelists Hans Fallada and Irène Némirovsky. Keilson's two later novels were proclaimed masterpieces: Now, with the publication of Damion Searl's translation of Life Goes On, all three Keilson novels, which together span the period from the Weimar Republic through the ascent of Hitler to the Nazi occupation of Europe, are available in English; and this early work is revealed as an indispensable prologue to a gathering horror.
"Seldersen the shopkeeper had never in his life wanted anything to do with people whose heads seemed to be bursting with big, boundless ideas," Keilson writes of the middle-aged resident of a small Prussian town during the late 1920s. But, as the novel opens, Seldersen, a German Jew and a decorated soldier who fought for his country in the First World War, is already being buffeted by the looming economic depression and by the rise of National Socialism.
Big ideas intrude on this small life, at first in small ways. Seldersen's landlord asks his tenant to move from the store he and his wife have tended for twenty-four years to a smaller location. "I have to worry about myself too," the landlord explains. "My children are still young, while your son will be done with school in a few years and your daughter is already in Berlin. What about me, what about me?" The question is mockingly posed by the narrator, Seldersen's teenage son Albrecht, a character obviously based on Keilson. Albrecht 's existential struggles — at first romantic and self-absorbed, later urgent and real — seem to mirror those of his creator, and indeed, Keilson explains in his afterword that he began writing Life Goes On when his early attempt to sign up as a patient at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute failed. The young man was told that there was no reason for him to enter analysis. "I went back home, furious," Keilson writes, "and sat down to write the opening sentences of the book."
In its more introspective passages, Life Goes On reveals this early, passionate impulse to describe the miseries and yearnings of youth. Albrecht realizes, for example, "that sometimes a thought he vaguely sensed in himself (merely a breath of air, a soft sound) could, when he sensed it in someone else, a poet, be transformed into a fixed, clear harmony, ringing out loud and clear and purifying and strengthening his soul?" The shadows of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse loom large here; the book that enchants young Albrecht with its "captivating melancholy sweetness" is Mann's Tonio Kröger. But an increasingly brutal world will crush Albrecht's romantic aestheticism as surely as it crushes his parents' livelihood. And Keilson keeps our attention largely fixed on the quotidian details of the Seldersens' decline.
"Money was at the center of their lives," Albrecht observes, "its well-ordered movements in and out of the house were what guaranteed a secure and dignified existence?" As the debts of customers accumulate on Seldersen's books and as he in turn begs credit from his suppliers and later shoulders increasingly crippling loans, his faith in order and security is replaced by shame and despair. Yet, Keilson writes of the shopkeeper, "Even an old workhorse stays alive, dragging its cart slowly down the road."
Like most of the characters in Keilson's fiction, the shopkeeper is no hero. Early on, he rejects an invitation by Knipfer, a "consumptive little radical," to attend political meetings. "To a certain extent, this passionate participation strikes him as ridiculous, dilettantish, even unmanly," Seldersen muses. A short time later, however, Frau Seldersen will declare, "You're not a man anymore," and her defeated husband will simply answer, "No." It is a terrible moment, plainly rendered, and this unadorned directness is Keilson's great strength. Whether he is describing Albrecht's new school principal ("...there was a new punctiliousness and precision") or the final acts of a destitute Berliner ("...he would laugh a humble laugh and act hopeful, then maybe go and shoot himself the next day or stick his head in the oven"), Keilson reveals both the thing itself and the shadow that it casts, behind or ahead.
If Life Goes On seems at times to be a struggle between realism and romanticism, that may be the point. Albrecht wants nothing to do with the world, just as his father wants nothing to do with politics. The son longs for the life of the mind, his father for a quiet existence. The novel ends, however, with the Seldersens watching a parade of workers and students marching past Albrecht's flat in Berlin. First Albrecht raises his arm in salute, then his father reluctantly raises his. Keilson later told the novel's translator that he originally described his characters raising their fists in the Communist salute, but the publisher in 1933 made him change this to a more ambiguous gesture.
Decades later, Keilson further intensified the struggle — corporeal and psychological — that so powerfully animates Life Goes On when he created, in Death of the Adversary, a protagonist who is obsessed with Hitler, his indispensable enemy, and who attempts to impose meaning and reason on a force dedicated to annihilating both. "I was merely a caricature, a mask, which he had shaped in his dread," the narrator observes of Hitler, and Keilson allows us to see how this, how anything, is a possible truth when truth itself is lost.
Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.
Reviewer: Mundow, Anna
The landlord walked into the store. He was fat and moved with the gestures of a woman.
“I would very much like to speak with you, Herr Seldersen,” he said pompously.
Father was sitting behind the counter by the shop window, reading. That is what he usually does when he is alone with no customers. In the past few months, he has had a lot of time to read; sometimes he reads the whole newspaper three times in a single day. When he heard footsteps, he jumped up as quick as he could and said, in a punctilious voice, “How may I help you?” Then he saw it was his landlord, and his face relaxed. He laughed.
“So sorry to bother you, Herr Seldersen. It’s only me. My wife said I should drop by and see if you were alone, so I came over. Actually it’s not urgent, but I would like to speak with you.” He expressed himself in a roundabout way, with everything veiled in obscurity.
Father came out from behind the counter to the front of the store, next to the high stack of linoleum rolls. The landlord’s ambiguous words have made him a little anxious. Who knows what’s happening now? he thinks.
“Here’s the situation, Herr Seldersen,” the landlord begins, suddenly strangely abrupt and to the point. “The corner store next door is opening up. The jam business’s lease is up in six months.”
The landlord does not want to renew the lease, even though he has received an appropriate rent for the place for many years and has made a handsome profit from the store. But his own shop, selling paper, writing supplies, and newspapers—where he has been for twelve whole years—has now become too small for him. He wants to expand, he is feeling the pressure. Fine.
You wouldn’t believe what I have stuck in storage, he brags, I could fill a whole warehouse! Pictures, books, pens, stationery, souvenirs. In addition, the newspaper publisher that he represents here in the city wants him to expand to a branch office; it’ll have a big green sign outside listing the names of all the newspapers and journals he stocks, and a large display window where he can hang the latest issue for passersby, all cosmopolitan and generously furnished. So he wants to expand into Herr Seldersen’s store, which is located next to his own. He’ll tear down the wall between the two and convert the two small spaces into a large business. Herr Seldersen, then, would move another door down in the same building, to the corner location, and otherwise everything would stay the same. That’s his plan. What does Herr Seldersen think? Isn’t it splendid? Just think, a corner store, on the main traffic street along the market; how many people have had their eyes on that corner! There’s no better location.
Herr Seldersen stood there the whole time the landlord was talking, as though listening to a speech, but he knew everything as soon as the landlord started. Now it was his turn to say something, and he said:
“Yes, well, I have to talk to my wife first.”
Nothing more. No contradiction, no refusal, he just had to talk to his wife first.
The landlord hadn’t dreamed it would be so easy. “Of course, go ahead and talk to your wife; there’s no hurry, it’s six months away. Of course, I’d set everything up for you, repaint, new floors, anything that needs doing. We’ll come to terms on everything; first you should just think it over.”
Father said nothing—he leaned against the counter, reached his hand back to support himself on the countertop, and said nothing. Then Frau Seldersen walked into the store and saw the two men. The landlord or his wife come over often; they and the Seldersens visit each other, they are on good terms. When the landlord and his wife had their last child two years ago and the doctor and midwife needed additional help, they called Herr Seldersen. Whatever anyone wanted, he could do—fix watches, sole shoes, wire doorbells, polish floors, take down curtains and put them back up again—he knew everything. And on that occasion too he put on a big apron and ten minutes later a bouncing baby boy was born. They never forgot what he had done.
“It’s good that you’re here, Frau Seldersen,” the landlord said. “I’ve just been talking to your husband.”
“What’s wrong?” Mother asked anxiously. The landlord started over from the beginning. Frau Seldersen listened and felt a terrible shock. She kept calm at first, but soon her nervousness started to show; her gaze moved from the landlord to Father standing there with a blank look as though not wanting anyone to guess his thoughts, then back to the landlord. After only a few sentences she understood what was happening. Father is like a child in a situation like this, she thought, awkward and helpless, and if she hadn’t come in just in time he would have accepted it all in silence, not answered anything, and kept his thoughts to himself.
“Really, that’s asking a bit much,” she began. “We’ve been here in this store for more than twenty years and now you want to throw us out.”
“Throw you out? How could you think such a thing, no one’s throwing anyone out! You would move to the corner store next door, isn’t that a good location?”
Mother was agitated; this was all so unexpected. “Yes, but why this change right now when no one knows where we’re heading?” They still had a few years left to work—not another twenty-five years, by God—and they had known things would change, but at least they would be in the same place.
“Why put up such a fight?” the landlord suddenly asked in a sharper tone. “It doesn’t matter if you’re here or next door, anyone who wants to shop in your store will walk the three extra steps to the corner. Three steps, no more, in the same building, it’s ridiculous…”
Mother shook her head. These last comments bounced off her as though she didn’t hear them at all.
“… when you yourself say that you don’t plan to stay very long anyway, that you’re going to retire soon.”
“Yes, retire,” she repeated bitterly.
“All the same,” the landlord continued, “I have to worry about myself too. My children are still young, while your son will be done with school in a few years and your daughter is already in Berlin.” What about me, what about me?
“But you do own the building,” Mother interjected. He laughed. Yes, true, the building, she’s right, the building does belong to him. Pause.
Can she see the gray hairs on his head? They belong to him too. Ha-ha, he owns the building, if only she knew the worries he had she wouldn’t say that so casually, no; the building brings him nothing but cares and worries. Here the roof leaks and workmen have to come to fix the ceiling, there a pipe bursts and he has to call the plumber, there’s the garbage disposal, and then property taxes on top of it all.… He held his head in his hands. No, just recently he had told his wife: Little Mother, he said, the building is nothing but a huge headache, it has never brought me a minute of happiness. He had inherited it from his mother and he hadn’t wanted to accept it, he resisted it to the end, but finally what else could he do? (The mortgages were paid off during the inflation, before they were revalued.) He gave a heavy groan.
“But the corner location is so much smaller,” Herr Seldersen said, resuming the conversation after a while.
Not too small, definitely not too small, and it’ll be easier for you to have everything within easy reach. And it’s bright, the light is significantly better, you’ll save a lot of money on lighting.
“And the display window around the corner will also be no good to us,” Frau Seldersen added. “Who’s going to go around the corner to look at the window? And both windows are a lot smaller too. Is this how it’s going to be?” she asked finally.
“Not right away, not for six months,” the landlord said. “I said that at the beginning.” He was not in the mood to continue the conversation, it might turn into an argument after all. What’s the point of their arguing, if he wants to …
Mother broke the silence, trying to put on a carefree tone: “We’ll think it over, and you can think it over too,” she said, as calmly as she could. “You’d lose the rent from one of the businesses, after all, that’s something you need to think through pretty carefully.”
“For the few years we have left here,” Herr Seldersen said in all innocence, “let us stay in the old location. I’ve been here twenty-four years; we won’t be here much longer, hopefully we’ll be done soon. Talk it over again with your wife.”
“I’ve told her everything already,” the landlord answered. But he promised to go over the whole situation with her again. Then he left.
Father and Mother stayed where they were. He stood with his back resting against the counter; she paced restlessly back and forth. “No good will come of this,” she said, “just don’t touch it, I’m not setting foot in the new shop. No, no.…”
Father said nothing. He thought about how much of his life he had already spent standing in this store, day after day, except during the four years of the war. Mother has her own way of thinking, he makes fun of her superstitions, but deep down he is not free of them himself. He groans. Of course it wasn’t a simple matter of just moving next door, as the landlord had so casually presented it. And in the end, time was a powerful factor too: its traces could not be erased so quickly. Herr Seldersen remembered exactly how he had first come to this city as a traveling salesman, so many, many years ago. A small two-story building with ladders and scaffolding in front stood on the market square. When he visited again some time later, the construction was nearing completion. It was actually only a renovation, but you couldn’t recognize the old building in the new one: a small, dilapidated building had turned into a towering corner building visible from far away, with four shops set into the ground floor, including eight big shop windows. Herr Seldersen saw here the fulfillment of his dream to be an independent shopkeeper in his own shop, responsible to no one but himself. For three more years he continued to travel, without a fixed residence, just an employee like so many others. He earned good money and had no one but himself to spend it on; he worked hard and people treated him with respect and goodwill, but he was tired of that wandering life and wanted something for himself. He had saved up three hundred thalers.… Without a moment’s hesitation he went to see the owner and found a short, hunched-over craftsman, who had bit off more than he could chew with the construction and was now deep in debt. He stared at him and said, “I still have one shop free, on the main street, next to the corner. You can have it. I like you.” So they came to terms. Herr Seldersen opened his store six months later and hung a sign with his name on it over the door; his wares were laid out tastefully in two display windows and Herr Seldersen stood in the store himself, indefatigably selling whatever a person needed by way of clothing, from shoelaces to suits. You could buy everything there.
Time passed, the owner died, but Father stayed standing in the same place in his store. It was unthinkable that it would ever be different. Conditions had changed dramatically, though. He could certainly tell you a thing or two about that.
Punctually on the first of the month, he took the rent to the first owner’s son, the same one who had just shown up with his suggestion.
“We’ll wait and see,” Father said to Mother after a while. Wait and see, she nodded in agreement, yes, that was their only hope.
She didn’t say anything else—she knew that however hard she resisted there would be no other choice for them.
Albrecht, their son, came home from school and the three of them went upstairs to the apartment to eat. The apprentice shopgirl stayed downstairs alone. It was always empty in the store around lunchtime.
Father’s plates went back to the kitchen untouched. He sat mutely at the table, with a serious look on his face, as though something terrible had happened. Mother kept asking him to have just a spoonful of soup, a bite of meat—but in vain. He didn’t touch his food.
“It doesn’t taste good?” she asked.
“I’m not hungry,” Father answered. His face stayed rigid.
“You won’t change anything by not eating,” she said at last, but she went along with it.
Father said nothing. Albrecht, the son, sitting at the table with them, found this all very mysterious. What couldn’t Father change? Albrecht had unsuspectingly come home from school and now was made to witness this conversation. It occupied his thoughts for quite some time afterward. He paid close attention to the words his parents said, surreptitiously observed their behavior, tried to interpret and explain everything to himself, but he couldn’t quite manage it. He was sixteen years old, a thin boy of average height, the youngest in his class and a bit dreamy, with a delicate, almost girlish sensibility. He already showed certain talents, but it was impossible to tell what direction life would take him in later.
“At least have a few vegetables,” Mother began again. She passed Father the serving bowl.
Her constant questions were too much for him: Oh, stop tormenting me, can’t you see I’m tormenting myself enough already? (But he no longer said such things; you could only tell by looking at him that he thought them.) He immediately stood up and went back down to the store, skipping his short midday nap. But downstairs, sitting in his chair, he felt such overpowering exhaustion come over him that he visibly collapsed in on himself, leaning his head on the hard armrest and nodding off in that ridiculously uncomfortable position.
Mother and Albrecht stayed upstairs. She could no longer control herself; too many thoughts were running through her head and she fell into sorrowful memories.
Albrecht timidly asked her to tell him what had happened while he was at school. At first Frau Seldersen thought she could put him off with excuses, but since the boy persisted, she told him about the conversation with the landlord. Albrecht listened carefully. After she was done, he said frankly that he couldn’t see a problem with moving three steps down to the corner shop, no more than the landlord could; the landlord would just have to come down on the rent a bit, since she said the new space wasn’t as nice. Mother smiled slightly at his forceful words. “No,” she said, “that’s not the whole story, there’s more going on here, but you wouldn’t understand.” That made Albrecht really want to hear from Mother whatever it was that he didn’t understand, so she tried to explain to him what it meant to her to have to leave a place where she had spent half her life and had had such experiences.… “Twenty-four years, that’s longer than you’ve been alive, don’t you see that?” Albrecht rested his head in his hands and said thoughtfully, “Yes, I think I understand, but if there’s no other way…”
To which Frau Seldersen said, much less calmly than before, that you have to resist every change for as long as you can. Especially now, when they’ve already lost everything. Now they want to force them into this too.
Albrecht did not understand the context that lay hidden in her words. He looked her right in the face: when she said that about having lost everything; her voice sounded hard, masculine, as though the situation didn’t concern her at all. In addition, he did not understand what it meant to possess something and then have to give it up—he didn’t possess anything and didn’t know much. He had heard Mother talk about having “lost everything” many times, almost as an apology, the way someone asks for special consideration when his eyesight is bad, but he didn’t have any clear image of what it meant.
“Maybe the landlord can still be talked out of it,” he finally said, magnanimously, to try to cheer her up. She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so, we just have to prepare ourselves.” Then she left. Albrecht stayed behind, alone in the room. He repeated her last words to himself and thought about how exaggerated and overemotional her way of dealing with things was, in his opinion. He felt that with a little energy and strength you could avoid a lot of unpleasant things, or at least make them less unpleasant. He didn’t take the whole situation very seriously.
Copyright © 1933, 2005 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main
Translation copyright © 2012 by Damion Searls
Posted December 16, 2012
No text was provided for this review.